Ten tantalising runs from a first Test hundred, Rob Key headed for tea in the Lord's pavilion. Drained by the afternoon's humidity, he grabbed a few gulps of water before readying himself for the presentation of the England and West Indies teams to the Queen. He shook hands, then it was straight back out. He kept his concentration, but as he closed in on a century he felt the first stabs of a migraine - he knows dehydration can set one off - massing behind his left eye. Despite a slight blurring of vision, he whipped Fidel Edwards to mid-wicket and reached his hundred with a four, as he had his fifty and would his double. It was the happiest moment of Key's life.
He concedes he has played better - he was reprieved twice before making 60 - though 221 in a Lord's Test suggests something has gone right. In fact, most things went right in 2004. He unfurled a majestic hundred in Kent's opening game and in May transmuted his form from gold to platinum, stockpiling runs as though they were going out of circulation. In one sublime seven-innings sequence he passed 100 five times. So sure was his touch that he reached 1,000 first-class runs on June 2, the earliest for 16 years. He ended the season heading the averages with 1,896 at 79.
Against this backdrop, no one noticed his sketchy limited-overs form. Not even England, who oddly chose him for the NatWest Series. Key achieved little on the one-day stage but his dramatic county form had shot him to top of the list of Test understudies and, when Mark Butcher injured his neck, the call came. By his own admission, his timing, even at Lord's, was not as sweet as in May, and an indifferent performance at Edgbaston had critics carping about his technique a week after his double-hundred.
It brought out the fighter in Key - "he's got a bit of dog in him," said his former county captain Matthew Fleming - and in the Third Test at Old Trafford England had to scrap. Without a tenacious undefeated 93 from Key they might have lost. Fidel Edwards hurled it in short and eyeballed hard, but he rode it out. "In my mind, I'd come of age," Key recalls, the nearest this genuinely modest, affable man comes to a boast.
ROBERT WILLIAM TREVOR KEY was born in East Dulwich on May 12, 1979 into a family who lived sport. His father Trevor could turn his hand to any game, his mother Lyn played cricket for Kent Ladies, while his sister Elizabeth once took a hat-trick. The Keys live in Beckenham, where Kent meets London and even the primary schools still care about cricket. His own, Worsley Bridge, won both the Bromley and Kent Cups; he was chosen for the county Under-11s, and Alan Ealham, then in charge of youth teams at Kent, homed in and became his mentor. By 1998 Key was playing in the Under-19 World Cup, which England won. Later that summer, aged 19 years and ten days, he became Kent's fourth-youngest first-class centurion. A second hundred won him a place on the winter's A-tour to Zimbabwe and South Africa. Everything was falling into place.
Two events blasted away that attitude. The first was the 1999 PCA dinner when Alec Stewart approached the half-cut Key and told him to sort himself out. Few things had given Key as much pleasure as a drink or three with his friends. And it showed. For the first time in years, he had no overseas tour to focus on, and his plans amounted to a winter with his mates - "pretty much ruining myself, I suppose". He swapped the easy winter for a hard one with "Noddy" Holder, Justin Langer's batting coach in Perth, and for the first time became properly fit.
Then he met Rod Marsh in October 2001 as part of the first Academy intake. Initially, he queried the boot-camp regime; but he knuckled down. Having been pushed by Ealham, and then Stewart, Key was now driven by a craving for Marsh's praise, not common currency. His work-rate was as high as anyone's - and Marsh repaid him with the longed-for approbation. It proved a turning-point.
Injuries to others gave him his Test debut against India in 2002, and he did enough to squeeze on to the subsequent Ashes tour once Graham Thorpe pulled out. (After 15 Tests he is still to play as a first choice.) His hardbitten Australian opponents discerned a new, steelier, slimmer Key, though the runs did not flow. They came in 2004.
Newspaper stories about his weight still rumble on like hunger pangs, though a glimpse at a photograph of him as a Kent teenager reveals how much he has shed. "I'm never going to look like an athlete," he acknowledges. But he is beginning to look like a hell of a cricketer. There are genuine signs that he can forge fitness, a phenomenal eye and a determination to eradicate technical faults with an Australian intensity. If so, England should benefit handsomely; if not, Kent may be the beneficiaries.